You know that every protagonist should have a clear external goal that he is trying to achieve beginning at the first plot point of your script. But another thing that every protagonist needs is a significant internal problem that makes his external goal particularly difficult to achieve. This problem should be a part of his core personality, or something that he was born with, or simply who he is as a person.
For example, in the movie “Milk,” Harvey Milk’s internal problem that makes his goal of winning a City Supervisor election particularly difficult is the fact that he is gay. In the 1970s, when this story took place, no openly gay person had ever been elected to that high of a public office, so Harvey’s sexual preference was going to make things very hard for him. (I, um, can’t believe I just wrote that.) Even better, this internal “problem” is an intrinsic and immutable part of who Harvey is as a person, so there is nothing he can do to change it (unless you ask the members of the Westboro Baptist Church). This kind of internal conflict makes for some seriously great drama, as you can see in this extraordinary movie.
Here are more examples of how internal flaws and external goals have come into conflict in some great movies:
- In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone’s singular goal is to avoid going into his family business, but his internal problem is that he is the only member of this family who could possibly be any good at it. His sister, Connie, is ineligible because she’s not a man. (Hey, now there’s a great internal problem – a woman who wants to be the next head of a Mafia family. Trademarked! Don’t even try to write a screenplay about that, because I called dibs!) Sonny can’t do it because he’s way too hot-headed. And don’t even try to convince me that Fredo could have done it. Puh-lease. No, Michael is the only one capable of running the family business, so he either comes on board or the business (and quite possibly the family) will die.
- In “Fargo,” Jerry Lundegaard needs to raise $1 million immediately, so he hatches a plan to have his wife kidnapped in order to get her rich father to pay the ransom. But the problem with this plan is that Jerry is utterly inept at crime. He is a quintessential Midwestern everyman, so masterminding a crime is as foreign to his nature as eating tofu or rooting against the Packers. His inherent inability to think and act like a criminal makes it impossible for him to successfully pull off a crime of any magnitude, let alone one this dangerous and complicated.
- In “Little Miss Sunshine,” six-year-old Olive wants nothing more than to go to California so that she can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Since Olive is too young to have a personality flaw like Jerry Lundegaard's, her inherent flaw must be something else that she was born with. In this case, it’s her family. I mean, have you seen this freak show? Good luck trying to get that entire crew to California in an ancient VW minibus without a thousand things going wrong. The second they open their mouths (or refuse to open it, in one case), the audience knows that it will be a miracle if they all survive this trip intact.
Good screenplays are loaded with conflict and there’s no better conflict than an internal flaw that stands directly between your protagonist and his path to true happiness. If you pit your protagonist’s external goal against a strong internal flaw, you are guaranteed to have a great source of conflict throughout your entire script.